To quote a well-worn phrase, times change, people change. Nowhere is this more evident than at the St. Martyrius Monastery. This 5th century monastery is situated in the Israeli town of Ma'ale Adumim. To put it mildly, the holy men of this Byzantine monastery would today be shocked by the building's loss of isolation.

The remains of the once-secluded complex are embedded in one of the town's bustling residential neighborhoods. Not that the monks lacked the opportunity to catch a glimpse of outsiders: To supplement the monastery's financial resources, they operated a pilgrims' hostel. Since this was on the main Jericho-Jerusalem road, one would assume they had many visitors.



In reality, however, the monks' privacy would not have been compromised, as the 140 foot x 66 foot stone inn apparently stood just outside the monastery compound itself. Today, the remains of the inn are adjacent to the entrance of the archeology site. Various amenities are still visible, including bedrooms (the stone beds may still be recognized) for the pilgrims and stables for their animals. Interestingly, water troughs are still clearly discernible. A chapel satisfied the pilgrims' spiritual needs.


Within the monastery proper, however, the monks apparently did not lack for fellowship. At its height, St. Martyrius was a large complex. From the number of rooms discovered at the site, one may assume that it housed quite a few monks. The monks themselves seemed to have had ample opportunity to mingle - in places like the bathhouse or in the spacious dining hall.

One might speculate that the bathing facilities would have promoted camaraderie. The bathhouse itself stood above a hot room. Heat apparently rose from below the raised floor (which stood on low brick columns). There was even an adjacent pool.

And while on the subject of water, even though this region gets rather hot and dry (yearly rainfall averages less than a foot), the monks seemed to have resolved their water problems. Throughout the site, rain water was gathered and stored using a series of roof run-off systems, channels and cisterns. In the courtyard, one may still see the gutters for collecting rain overflow. The total capacity of the reservoirs has been estimated at 20,000- 30,000 cubic meters (about 6,000,000 gallons). This provided the monks with water for their own needs, for agriculture and for the maintenance of various domestic animals.

We don't know how good the food tasted, but the pleasantly decorated dining area of the Martyrius Monastery certainly would have stimulated appetites. The refectory floor was appointed with inviting earth-toned geometric designs. Amazingly, even though they have been left exposed for some 1,500 years, these mosaics are still intact.

Today a roof has been erected to protect the colors from further fading.

This dining area was quite large, measuring 90 x 75 feet. The monks ate from the stone-carved benches bordering the room. Two rows of parallel columns supported another floor. The food was served from a large, adjacent kitchen. The monastery's builders likewise did not scrimp on the kitchen; the kitchen tables were made of marble.

Sadly, even holy men were not immune from attack. So in times of extreme danger, the monks barricaded themselves in the monastery with a rolling stone. This formidable blockade has a diameter of over eight feet, and is still standing at the complex's original eastern entrance.

Zev Vilnay underscored the dangers that loomed during the Byzantine period. In his book, Legends of Judea and Samaria, Vilnay explains that Ma'ale Adumim, or 'The Red Ascent,' for the blood of pilgrims and wayfarers spilled by robbers on the Jerusalem-Jericho road (p. 56, The Jewish Publication Society, 1975).

Today one may still see that a stone wall entirely enclosed the monastery. The wall measures over 6.5 feet, although it was probably significantly higher when built. The wall was about 70 centimeters (or about 2.3 feet) thick. Judging from the sockets with iron bases, the monks apparently just closed wooden doors when times were safer.

The monastery proper was built around a large, square central yard. Entry was from the east. Three sets of arches greeted visitors. These arches are testimony to the fact that this was a monastery of some means. It no doubt helped that its namesake was the Patriarch of Jerusalem from 478- 486.

Although it is hard to see the mosaics today, the main church was at one time well-appointed. The floor displays the remains of Greek inscriptions, basically a dedication to two abbots named Genesius and Iohannes. Painstakingly laid geometric shapes and animal figures are still partially visible. In total, the church measured approximately 84 x 22 feet. The compound likewise contained several chapels and, later, tombs. From the Greek inscription inside the burial area, we know this cave contained the remains of some of the monastery's notable holy men.

Perhaps this burial cave also served as Martyrius' secluded dwelling after he left the nearby laura Euthymus had initiated.

Archeologists suggest that the complex was constructed in three stages: In the first period, Martyrius set up a small cenobitic monastery. This phase may have consisted of no more than the construction of a small church and the preparation of Martyrius' own cave dwelling. Paulus, a later monastery head or archimandrite, headed up the second building stage. During this time, the monastery enjoyed tremendous growth, and became a major monastic center in the Judean Desert. As alluded to above, it coincided with Martyrius's appointment as Patriarch of Jerusalem.

In the third phase (553-568 CE), Archimandrite Genesius added both the stately refectory and the Chapel of the Three Priests in the southeastern section. He also is said to have cut back on the area occupied by the stables. In his honor, the dining area floor was inscribed with the following words:

During the time of our holy father Genesius, presbyter [church elder] and archimandrite [abbot], this work too was done for his salvation and for the salvation of his brethren in Christ. This work was completed in the month of March, in the first year of the indiction.

Also at this time, the church floor was repaved with a colorful mosaic, the bathhouse along the western wall may have been built, and the pilgrim hostel was constructed. The monastery reached its peak by 578 CE. This period, however, was relatively short-lived.

Reportedly, the monastery suffered damage first from an earthquake and then from the Persian invasion of 614. It was abandoned after the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century. Records show that a Muslim family started farming there in the eighth century, attracted by the remains of the sophisticated water system.

Under the direction of Yitzhak Magen, the Israeli Antiquities Department first excavated the site in the 1980s. Management was then turned over to the newly created Ma'ale Adumim municipality. The municipality, however, was unable to profitably maintain the site, so it came under the authority of the Judea/Samaria Civil Administration's Staff Officer of Archeology. The site has remained closed to the public for several years, although periodic excavations have continued (apparently the most recent was a 2000 Augustana College expedition under the direction of Prof. Robert Haak). Recently, an archeology plan has reached fruition: soon this site and three other sites along the old Christian pilgrim route will be opened (or re-opened) to the public.

As the first step, the Good Samaritan site opened its museum in June 2009.

St. Martyrius monastery exemplifies survival under harsh conditions. To the 21st century visitor, it demonstrates how, despite numerous challenges, a community of religious men was able to sustain a life of devotion and service to their Creator.

Ms. Fields, ACSW, is an educational writer based in Israel. Her ebook Take a Peek Inside: A Child's Guide to Radiology Exams, has just been launched on the Internet.

*This article appeared in the April issue of the Jerusalem Post's Christian Edition,
 to subscribe click here.
Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share